Do you think you could write 50 000 words in a month? Or, perhaps the more pertinent question, would you even want to? I’ve heard a lot of different thoughts on NaNoWriMo since I first encountered the idea a few years ago, and I feel like most of them have been positive – variations on the view that it encourages more people to write, and that is, on balance, a good thing. I have also seen some people argue vehemently that NaNoWriMo encourages bad writing practices, promoting getting words down for the sake of it without critically examining your own work.
Just in case you don’t already know, NaNoWriMo is a shortening of National Novel Writing Month. Each November, writers across the world aim to write 1667 words a day of any project to reach a total wordcount of 50 000 by the time midnight on the 30th rolls around. The event has been running since 1999 now, and it’s only grown in popularity, from 21 participants to over 400 000. They have a youth programme, often run in schools, and there’s a strong community feel to the whole event.
I have participated in five NaNoWriMos now, and personally I’m strongly in favour of it. I’ve won three of those five, writing at least 50 000 new words of a work in process. One of those is the story I’m working on now, trying to turn into a marketable manuscript. It’s the first time I’ve got beyond the first draft of a project, and I credit NaNoWriMo in large part to getting me to this point. That first draft that I got down in 30 days was flawed and messy, but nevertheless, I’m proud of the work I did that November.
Still, five goes at NaNo have not turned me into somebody who writes every day. Of the five story ideas I’ve spent a month turning over in my head, trying to spin words out of the worlds in my head, this is the first one to get beyond that initial sprawling first draft stage. Does that mean my previous NaNo attempts were failures? Does it mean they were a waste of time? I would argue not, but I would also be the first to confess that I didn’t use that time or that work as well as I could have. And, I admit, there has been a temptation to hold off on a new idea until November starts, and set that same idea aside when the month ends.
I asked the Writing Community on Twitter what they thought about NaNoWriMo, and the majority of those who responded (63%) would describe their thoughts on NaNo as “entirely positive”. There were some elaborating comments. Jess Lawrence (@JessLaw247 on Twitter) said she participated for the first time last year, and managed to get to 50 000 words. She added, “Yes, it’s not my sharpest writing, but that’s what editing is for and I have 50k more words to edit than if I hadn’t NaNo’d.”
There were, of course, less enthusiastic responses as well – mostly from people who felt that the word count creates too much pressure, or that hitting a specific word count isn’t necessarily something to celebrate. 5% of those who responded to my highly scientific survey thought that NaNoWriMo encourages bad writing, and given that a huge focus is switching off the inner editor I can definitely see how they come to that conclusion.
On balance, I think it’s better to have a very rough 50 000 words that you can edit later than nothing. I don’t know how long it would have taken me to get to a vaguely finished first draft if I hadn’t taken part in NaNo this year, and I think the community around it (with word sprints, discussion forums and a LOT of encouragement between participants) is a huge plus for an activity that can be very solitary. But I can also see that if you’re somebody who’s already in the habit of writing every day that it might feel counterproductive to rush through a bunch of words for the sake of it.
This month I’m participating in Camp NaNo, which I think might be a good compromise for people who like the idea of NaNoWriMo but find the actual word count goal oppressive. You still get the sense of community, and the external accountability that comes with that, but you have the freedom to set your own goals – and they don’t have to be word count ones. This April I aim to work on my current project for 90 hours in total, because a lot of what I’m doing is tweaking scenes and clearing up characterisation rather than necessarily adding a lot of words. So far I’m a little behind, but part of the fun of NaNo is catching up a deficit!
What are your writing goals this month, and are you on track to hit them so far? What do you think of NaNoWriMo, or Camp? Let me know!